United Church of Christ minister the Rev. Bob Lawrence, pastor of Open Table UCC in Owasso, Okla., had cause for two celebrations on Tuesday, Jan. 14. In addition to his birthday, Lawrence celebrated a U.S. District Court Judge ruling that an Oklahoma state amendment to the constitution prohibiting same-sex marriages violates the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.
"Yesterday was best birthday present in the world. It was exciting," said Lawrence, who is also executive director of the Tulsa Interfaith Alliance and a supporter of LGBT rights. "The fact that any movement happened at all in Oklahoma is beyond our wildest imagination – I thought we’d be one of the last. But the courts are on our side and this is about justice."
UCC activists for LGBT rights are sure to keep an eye on the case, even if they weren’t expecting the news they got Tuesday. The Rev. Mike Schuenemeyer, UCC executive for health and wholeness advocacy, wasn’t ready to declare it a total victory in Oklahoma, since marriages there won’t begin right away, but he acknowledged that the decision was a "unexpected, albeit forward step" in recognizing the rights of LGBT people.
Lawrence saw a tweet from the Human Rights Campaign and said he was "dumbfounded" by the news. "Two of the [four] plaintiffs are members of my church, so I know the struggle has been going on for nine years and delay after delay," he said. "We didn’t know when the decision coming down. As far as what the decision was, that we expected."
This is just the third ruling from a federal court on marriage equality. The most recent instance previously was in December in Utah, and before that, in 2010 when a California federal court overturned Proposition 8 before it was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"LGBT people living in states that deny the freedom to marry are asking their state and federal courts for justice and equality," Schuenemeyer said. "I believe that's what we are seeing now in Oklahoma, and earlier this month with Utah. Those justices responsible for interpreting the law, in my view, clearly recognize that the constitutional guarantees of equal protection do not exist with these prohibitive and discriminatory laws that restrict marriage."
Unlike Utah's decision, which took effect shortly after the ruling, same-sex marriages won't begin immediately in Oklahoma because the state is likely to appeal the ruling. Utah state officials eventually obtained a stay on same-sex marriages there and are appealing the expedited case while about 1,300 married same-sex couples wait in legal limbo. An appeal is likely in Oklahoma to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals – the same one that will hear Utah's appeal.
"Court appeals are part of the legal process," Schuenemeyer said. "But as these cases continue to work their way through the legal system, it is my hope that each case carries with it a chance that anyone in any state can eventually marry the person they love."
There are currently 17 states, (potentially 18 with Utah), that recognize marriage equality in addition to the District of Columbia: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Maryland, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington.
The UCC broke ground on LGBT equality by becoming the first mainline denomination to ordain an openly gay minister, the Rev. Bill Johnson, in 1972. Three decades later the UCC stepped to the front of the issue again, when in 2005 the denomination became the first church to affirm marriage equality for all people regardless of their gender.